NewsAugust 16, 2012

Drought May Ease in Coming Weeks; Too Late for Crops

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Michael D. Lemonick

By Michael D. Lemonick

The epic drought that has gripped large parts of the U.S. for much of the summer, and which now ranks as the nation’s fifth worst on record, should ease some in parts of the country in the coming weeks, according to an outlook on Thursday from the Climate Prediction Center (CPC) of the National Weather Service. The dryness has been so intense in the nation’s heartland, however, that for a broad swath of the country — covering all or part from Missouri west to California and from Texas north to Montana — drought conditions are likely to persist all the way through the end of November.

In parts of the country, the easing has already begun, according the U.S. Drought Monitor, especially in the Corn Belt states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri. More than 60 percent of the lower 48 states were still suffering under some level of drought as of August 14, though, and in some key agricultural states, including Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma, conditions have gotten dramatically worse.

In Kansas, for example, the total area now classified as being in exceptional drought — the most severe category of dryness — nearly doubled, from 38.58 percent of the state on August 7 to 63.3 percent on August 14. In Missouri, the area suffering exceptional drought leaped nearly threefold, from 13.89 percent to 35.51 percent, over the same period. Oklahoma’s exceptional-drought area swelled from 16.03 to 38.86 percent, and while “only” 22.53 percent of Nebraska is now under exceptional drought, the figure as of August 7 was less than 3 percent. Overall, nearly a quarter of the country was still suffering from extreme or exceptional drought as of mid-August.

As a result, the impact on agricultural production continues to be devastating. The Climate Prediction Center, citing U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, said that more than half of the corn crop across the 18 leading corn-producing states was in poor, or very poor condition. For sorghum (used mostly for feeding livestock), 48 percent of the crop was doing badly, and for soybeans, the number was 38 percent.

Heavier-than-normal rainfall for parts of the afflicted area, due in part to a growing El Niño, may bring some relief over coming weeks, and cooler temperatures will keep moisture from evaporating as vigorously as it has during the long, hot summer. That should ease the drought eastern Texas, Louisiana and Alabama, the Ohio Valley and the eastern Great Lakes region.The CPC says the Upper Midwest and northern Great Plains should also see improvement. But for the states in the worst shape now — Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and the southern High Plains — the moisture deficit is so deep that drought is likely to persist all the way past Thanksgiving.

For many crops  it’s too late to make up for the stress they’ve already experienced, even in the states that are getting some relief in the form of rain showers and cooler temperatures. And in the worst-hit states, it’s too late for even this welcome change in the weather to make up for the terrible dryness of the past several months.